UK to launch new military space command

Star wars: The laser cannon has moved from science fiction to reality. © EA

Will World War III be fought in space? A new space command, a national cyber force and an artificial intelligence agency will be part of Britain’s defence transformation programme.

A satellite silently explodes in the vacuum of space. The kinetic kill vehicle that has just smashed into it at 18,000mph has shattered into a million metal fragments. Their debris mingles in earth’s orbit and, somewhere below, lights start to flicker out. Phones and computers go dead.

This vision of the future of war is one that the UK government has just decided to invest in. Yesterday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a £16.5bn increase in defence funding over the next four years.

This is good news for arms companies, including those who make up the UK’s “Dragonfire” consortium, the group currently tasked with making laser cannons a reality for British forces.

That dragon could soon breathe its fire in outer space, if the UK is serious about achieving the ultimate strategic high ground. Countries looking for military advantage will soon require technology for destroying or jamming communications satellites, as well as for defending them.

France has already announced plans to equip its next generation of military satellites with lasers to prevent attacks.

It joins a select group of countries preparing for space combat, including Iran, North Korea, Russia, India and the USA.

In 2018, the USA created a separate branch of the military covering extra-terrestrial conflict, called the “Space Force”. Though some mocked President Trump for the decision, other countries, it seems, are following his lead. This year, NATO, the transatlantic military alliance, declared space to be an “operational domain”, meaning a legitimate theatre of war.

Glimpses of what this theatre might look like are already available to polemologists. In 2007, China launched a kinetic kill vehicle to destroy one of its own satellites in low earth orbit, and India performed a similar test in 2019.

This July, Russia tested an anti-satellite projectile fired from a satellite which had itself been launched from another satellite. The US have likened it to a futuristic matryoshka. The Russian probe was allegedly stalking an American military communications satellite before US officials reprimanded the Russians and it retreated.

Perhaps, some suggest, space could be not just a front in any future world war, but where it starts.

While no territory can be claimed in outer space, interfering with one another’s satellites may serve as a way of testing diplomatic boundaries – or it may set the world up for collisions.

Russia backed away this time, but any incident that starts with satellites crashing could shake the globe.

So, will World War III be fought in space?

Space race

The future is here, say some. In one sense, wars are already fought in space. Without the communications satellites currently orbiting the earth, most modern military operations would grind to a halt. It is only logical that, as space comes to be increasingly essential to war, war will come to space. The world’s major powers would not be investing in this front if they did not think conflict likely.

This is science fiction, say others. Just like flying cars and jetpacks, space combat has captured the imagination without establishing a beachhead in reality. Weapons of mass destruction are banned in space and no missile from earth can reach a satellite in a geostationary orbit. While electronic communication is crucial to modern warfare, the real front for that war is online, not in space.

You Decide

  1. Should the government spend money on spacecraft when it could use that money to end homelessness?
  2. Do we have any obligation to preserve the environment of outer space, or does pollution only matter on earth?

Activities

  1. Imagine you have to colonise Mars. Make a list of the jobs that you would need people to do in order for the colony to be successfully established.
  2. The billionaire Elon Musk has recently argued that if he successfully establishes a colony on Mars “Earth Law” should not apply. Imagine you are a colonist on Mars and write a “Declaration of Independence” explaining why you should not have to obey “Earth law”.

Some People Say...

“Orbiting Earth in the spaceship, I saw how beautiful our planet is. People, let us preserve and increase this beauty, not destroy it!”

Yuri Gagarin, (1934 - 68) Russian Cosmonaut and the first human in space

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is widely agreed that conflict and military pressure have driven many innovations in space exploration. The rockets used to go into space were developed from ones the Germans used to attack London in WWII. It was the pressures of the Cold War that encouraged Russia and the USA to develop their space programmes. In 1958, the US made plans to demonstrate its military might by detonating a nuclear bomb on the moon. Luckily, the plan was soon scrapped.
What do we not know?
One key area of debate is whether combat in space is currently worth the effort. The calculations involved in attacking a satellite require considerable advance planning, but the real obstacle is something called the Kessler Syndrome. Every object destroyed in or near earth’s orbit would continue its journey as fragments, which could collide with other satellites. This could soon make it impossible to launch anything into space. Fighting would then become impossible relatively quickly.

Word Watch

Vacuum
Outer space is not in fact a perfect vacuum, but it is the closest thing we have found. This means it is so empty that there is nothing there to vibrate and make sound.
Kinetic kill vehicle
This is a weapon for attacking satellites that uses only its own momentum, or kinetic energy to inflict its damage. It is typically a missile without an explosive warhead. Satellites orbiting the earth are travelling so fast that the kinetic energy of almost any object that could hit them would be enormous.
Consortium
A group of companies. Dragonfire includes the companies MBDA and BAE Systems as well as Qinetiq and Leonardo-Finmeccanica.
Strategic
In military thinking, strategy is often differentiated from tactics. A tactic is a particular manoeuvre for a particular goal, whereas a strategy is a longer term plan. Possessing the high ground is a strategic aim because it consistently grants its possessor an advantage in combat.
Polemologists
Someone who studies war. The discipline is named after a minor Greek god of war Polemos (the major deity is Ares). It is from Polemos that we get the word polemic, meaning an angry or controversial piece of writing.
Low earth orbit
Depending on what distance a satellite is from earth it is categorised into three kinds of orbit. Low earth orbit is the closest, which means that the satellite is moving fastest. Most of the really important satellites are at the highest orbit, called geostationary orbit.
Matryoshka
These Russian dolls are actually a set of increasingly small wooden dolls that all nest inside each other.
Reprimanded
Told off.
Territory
The 1967 Outer Space Treaty declared that space was “the province of all mankind”. No individual or nation can make a territorial claim on space, which makes sense, when you consider that the word territory comes from the Latin word for Earth.
Directed energy weapons
This category includes lasers, microwave beams and sonic weapons.

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